Mysterious Alice

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland remain a mystery 150 years after publication

“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I’m not myself, you see?”

Some 150 years after the canonical Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published, both the book and the central character Alice herself remain two of the great enigmas of children’s literature.

At the York Festival of Ideas, to celebrate the story’s 150th anniversary this year, York’s very own Professor Hugh Haughton spoke to Professor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst of the University of Oxford about his book, The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland.

Prof. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
Prof. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Professor Douglas-Fairhurst started with the areas of exploration that his book attempts to explore, acknowledging how Alice has become “harder to pin down” over years. Part of Alice’s elusiveness, he explained, stems from the doubling present in the book, such that Alice is both a fictional character who gets lost in a mad wonderland as well as a real girl who was the basis for that character.

He went on to reveal how this duality illuminates Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (often mixed up with Disney’s contraction “Alice in Wonderland”) as a story of contradictions, constantly pitching logic against nonsense to create a world where everything is unstable.

The allure of the context of which the novel is a product, is that it feeds back to that “admonitory fable of the time”, the imagination. Rather than the cautionary moral fables typical of Victorian children’s literature, Alice was different.

Perhaps this comes as no surprise: after all, the story came from eccentric mathematician who was rather imaginative himself. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, writing under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, had several idiosyncrasies that Professor Douglas-Fairhurst did delve into in a more biographical portion of his presentation, each “curiouser and curiouser” than the other.

Like his multifaceted tale, Carroll’s/Dodgson’s personality was full of contradictions: “Socially, [Dodgson] could be gregarious and warm and witty. He could also be shy and cold and prickly. He was almost obsessively neat and orderly, but also almost obsessively playful and silly.” A memorable quirk of his was that he enjoyed collecting anagrams. The then Prime Minister’s name, William Ewart Gladstone, would for instance become “Wild agitator means well” or “A wild man will go at trees”.

Lewis Carroll, 1863
Lewis Carroll, 1863

The biographical and critical research that had gone into writing such a complex exploration of Carroll’s work was no doubt extensive, Professor Douglas-Fairhurst admitting that he initially did not realise how broad this endeavour was. “The Story of Alice” provided a nuanced and discerning look at the different aspects of Carroll’s iconic book that will continue to intrigue with its delightful and frightening world of Wonderland.